Ashes. We don’t deal in ashes, really. There’s the dust that collects on my dresser, or on the dashboard of my car, but I’m not really confronted by true ashes on any regular basis. When the weather is as cold as it is now, I like a fire in the fireplace, and then I have to scoop out the ash when I clean it. But this is only seasonal, and a fire in the fireplace is really more for recreation than for real warmth. I’m not actually burning wood because I need to heat my house or cook my food.
I imagine 150 years ago we were all more inclined be around ashes as part of our normal life, when a good combustible fire or burning coal stove was the heartbeat of a home at waking and meal times. Then the ashes would be the constant, familiar leftovers of that fiery exchange which regularly provided life and light and heat to a family. This kind of daily familiarity with ashes and their function opens us up to think about our customary start to Lent differently.
Our bodies return to dust when we die, and the Ash Wednesday we celebrate this month is a good holy day to recall our own death, even as a fire dies. But for those who would deal daily in the regular fires that leave their linty residue behind, we ask about the fire that produced the ash: what quality was the heat that left it behind? How hot was it? Can we tell by the quality of the ash? If we, too, are returning to dust, then what is the quality of the passionate, fiery exchange that burns us up? What flows through us, ennobling us even as it changes us, and gives life and light and heat to the world?
All of us go down to the dust, and some will go quietly into our graves, allowing the gentle turn of earth to transform our bodies back to its original substance. And that might be enough for some to consider this Ash Wednesday; life in the dust. But I pray that the quickening fire of the Holy Spirit will catch the kindling of my soul, and set me on such fire, as I trust shall burn hot; that when I return my body to our creator, the heat that has run through me will create such delicate and powdery flakes of ash, as only the greatest inferno’s produce. These hoary flecks would be a testament to the blaze of my fervor for justice, compassion, hope, giving, and loving.
Yes, you are dust, and to dust you shall return, but make a fine dust of it this Lent. Aim to become a light powder refined by the spirit of the Holy, transformed in the heat of Christ’s love. Rediscover how wonderful becoming ash can be, how life-giving this passionate exchange of the holy can be. Filled with such passionate and transforming love, you will be ready to deal regularly in ashes, truly. Ashes.